Patrick Swayze was a big softie. With performances in nearly three dozen movies in more than three decades, that was the secret behind his best work: his ability to convey, even when he was playing a tough guy, that beneath the glower his character was actually kind, sensitive and maybe even hurting.
His two most memorable roles, in 1987’s Dirty Dancing and 1990’s Ghost, both showcased his caring side. They were also his biggest box-office successes.
In Dancing, he made hearts flutter as a sexy, supportive dance instructor who, via the mambo and cha-cha, helps transform a teenage wallflower (Jennifer Grey) into a self-confident woman. In Ghost, he played an apparition who returns from the dead to protect his widow (Demi Moore) from harm. In the love story’s most memorable scene, a ghostly Swayze helped Moore turn throwing pottery on a wheel into a near X-rated activity.
Though he continued to work steadily over the past two decades, Swayze never found a role to match those earlier successes, at least in terms of ticket sales. The problem may have been that he was too much of a generalist, equally comfortable in dramas, comedies and action films. He could dance and even donned drag – in 1995’s To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
So the question became, what defined a Patrick Swayze role? With the exception of Johnny in Dirty Dancing, he never had a part that seemed uniquely his, one you could imagine no actor but Swayze doing. Still, given a role with a little meat on it, such as a compassionate Army sergeant he played in a small, independent film called The Green Dragon (2001), Swayze delivered just the right mix of steel and heart.
And when he did, to paraphrase his own most famous line from Dancing, nobody ever put Swayze in the corner.